Sips from the Firehose
A blog that seeks to filter the internet into a refreshing, easily-gulped beverage


Dec 13

Year-end Prediction Season Begins (with a look back)

Posted: under Amusing Nonsense.
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At the end of every year, magazines, newspapers, pundits and chuckleheaded bloggers like me all do what we used to call “thumbsuckers” back in my old newspapering days. We kick our feet back on our desks, stare up at the stained asbestos-laced soundbrick ceiling and pretend that we have some special powers of insight & prediction.

Mostly, it’s an excuse to churn out a weekly column without having to try to get people on the phone for an interview during the holiday season.

With that in mind, let’s check out a blast from the past – I chose the predictions made in Fortune magazine back in 2004, at the very height of the artificial subprime boom market, as a means of demonstrating how off-base we can be.

First, there’s the cover story itself:

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Remember, this was right after Google had had its fabled rocket-like IPO, and not so long after it had been on the auction block to the much larger & entrenched rival Yahoo! for about $1Bn. All us dot-bomb 1.0 refugees were still a little stunned & dazed from the implosion, and the utter skepticism of financial markets towards anything in the tech sector had not yet been hit by the Apple iPhone/app store wrecking ball.

So maybe they were justified in saying galactically stupid things like: “Far from hailing Google as the next eBay or even the next Microsoft (search the web on that phrase and Google’s name does come up), the skeptics see Google as just the latest dot-com-bubble stock”

(snip)

“For all its impressive technology and verve, Google, as noted earlier, has no such clear competitive advantage [as Microsoft then did]. That ma help explain why – as was true during the late, great dot-com bubble – many insiders are rushing for the exits. Three top executives, engineering chief Wayne Rossing, general counsel David Drummond, and HR chief Shona Brown, said in SEC filings at the end of November that they had sold blocks of stock worth millions of dollars.”

(snip)

“Google seems well positioned to repeat or even exceed that impressive corporate performance. Just don’t bet the rent money on it.”

Obviously, the trauma of the dot-com collapse persisted, even four years later. How long is the much larger, deeper, and more far-reaching real-estate & banking collapse going to linger, I wonder?

Moving on, here’s what Fortune picked as some of the best new products of the year:

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That’s right. It’s a phone where you dial the number using an iPod clickwheel, and where you twist the body of the phone around so you can see yourself in a mirror. Or something.

Actual quote: “Good design is about knowing what to leave out. Nokia left out the dialing pad […] place your call via speech recognition.”

Good consumer purchasing decision are about not buying fuckwitted designs. Looking at this, the GPS watch (Ooo! Find yourself on Everest!) and the transvaginal ultrasound-looking vacuum cleaner, I gotta wonder exactly what the criteria were to pick a product as “Best.” Was it really about being something that millions/billions would find useful, or was it just about compiling a list of niche products that nobody heard of that make you look smart? (Not that I am immune to such impulses myself. Ahem.)

Finally, the big ad on the back cover says a lot about the tone & tenor of the times:

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Yeah, that’s right. A Hummer. Shown here as a “sport utility truck”. The best trend in Los Angeles is that the spike in gas prices has meant that there are fewer and fewer of these absurd road pigs clogging up the highways, weaving erratically in and out of lanes as the narcissist behind the wheel tries to work the scroll wheel on his Nokia phone to call the mortgage broker to buy another dozen or so “investment properties” out in Rancho Cucamonga.

Ah, irrational bubbles. It seems like everything will work, pretty much because there’s so much crazy money flying around the economy, that nothing is too stupid not to find a desperate buyer. As opposed to the current economic climate, where it seems like nothing will work, because even the most brilliant new innovation struggles to find backing.

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May 14

Teaching video techniques at Addis Ababa University

Posted: under journalism, television, Video.
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My students wanted to make sure to capture the conversation around the roundtable discussion we had on the subject of press freedom, so they set up the bagttered (but still serviceable) cameras outside the journalism department offices, and brought in all the accountrements of the formal coffee ceremony … the glowing coals in the brazier, the clouds of thick incense, and platters of roasted barley and chewy bread.

Dave LaFontaine standing with students at AAU

So far, everyone is still in a good mood....

It’s always difficult to figure out what the settings should be on a prosumer video camera, particularly when the opaque menus are written in a foreign language.

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Feb 26

The Oscars on Social Media: International Audiences Yawn, US Bloggers Snark

Posted: under new media, television.
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Live-Blogging the Oscars and Tracking the Tweet Clouds

I was hoping that the real-time geo-Tweet maps would show something interesting in and around Los Angeles during the Oscars telecast. No such luck.

Apparently, not that many people in and around Hollywood were actually Tweeting during the Oscars telecast - at least, not enough to compete with some of the other topics showing up on a Sunday night.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world didn’t seem too interested in the Oscars:

Strange that despite all the traffic about the Oscars, on Twitter that still didn't compete with some of the other trending news topics around the world -- such as the elections in Australia, or the massacres in Syria.

Drilling down a bit more, we can see some other names start showing up – although the Los Angeles area still isn’t #1 in Twitter activity. Guess our fingers are too busy here ferrying Scorcese-related cocktails to our mouths to actually type in a Twitter update.

Looking at the tag cloud, you can see that once you drill down past just "the Oscars," the names of the celebrities start showing up as trending topics.

 

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Jan 08

Wearable Media: T-Shirts, Hats & Wristbands

Posted: under Amusing Nonsense, Digital Migration, Video.
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Video Everywhere Comes to Our Clothing

I guess it was inevitable.

Back in the 80s, hip designers realized that consumers were willing to become walking billboards for their product logos, all for the sweet, sweet tradeoff of being able to flaunt our ability to buy outrageously overpriced clothing. Slap a big ol’ logo or even just the name onto a t-shirt, mark it up 3000%, and the nouveau riche (but inwardly crippled by insecurity & self-loathing) will fork over fat wads of cash to be able to demonstrate their affluence. And so Guess, Armani, Jordache (remember them?), Dolce & Gabbana and Nike all slapped their logos on otherwise ordinary mass-produced items, and watched their profits soar.

First, from T-Post, an interesting little take on spreading the news, via clothing. These funky designs have actual stories that you can read on the back.

tshirts that double as magazines

These t-shirts will at least keep the person waiting behind you in line at Starbucks well-informed.

I can see a real use for this kind of thing in places like Egypt, Syria, Russia, China — places where the government not only has censored the TV/radio stations, padlocked the printing plants, but DDoS’d the internet and shut down the cellphone grid. In places like that, just having a few people walk through the crowd as passive human billboards, with the latest information on their bodies, is a helluva tool to spread information.

Upside: It radically boosts your revolutionary chic.

Downside: It makes you a target for camel-riding truncheon-wielders.

Next up is a nifty little device that plays a programmable video loop, and that can be fashioned into clothing or attached to microphones to play sponsor’s messages during interviews before, during, or after big events.

It’s called VideoNameTag, and I took a demo unit with me to Kiev, when I taught a group of journalists and professors at the University of Mohyla’s Institute for the Digital Future of Journalism. You can see them puzzling over how to fit it onto their wrists – although they were certainly interested in the prospect of being able to broadcast the latest news via wireless connection to a couple of people walking through crowds.

 

They’re gearing up for an especially contentious election season in Ukraine this year; one where the pro-Putin crew is already pulling out all the stops to keep a lid on dissent. Not sure how much something like this could help – but then again, having a person walking through the crowd and playing a loop, such as the famous sequence showing the death of Iranian protestor Neda Soltan – could provide a form of information dissemination that would transcend the attempts at censorship.

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Nov 10

Ukrainian Professors Play with New iPad 2s

Posted: under Digital Migration, new media, Online Video, Ukraine.
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…in the courtyard of the Institute for the Digital Future of Journalism

I’ve got great video of everyone having a blast, experimenting with the new guerilla-style video production tactics I’ve been teaching them — I showed them how to use the front and rear-facing cameras on their iPads to shoot video. Here, they are working on producing “establishing shots” using whatever equipment is available to you at the time; in this case, it means holding the iPad up in front of your face and doing slow 360s, talking to the camera, so the audience can see for themselves what the landscape around you looks like.

journalism professors playing with ipads

They absolutely loved their brand-new iPad 2s. It was like seeing little kids getting handed Magic Mirrors. They were polite enough for most of the day, but about mid-afternoon, I just lost them in the wilds of the App Store. Also - I will never understand how the Ukrainian women manage to walk down these uneven, treacherous ancient cobblestone streets in stiletto heels.

I also taught them the basics of shot selection, framing, the Rule of Thirds, and some basic stuff about editing and shot sequencing as a means to create emotion. It was about a semester’s worth of material crammed into a one-day lecture, but at least I opened them up to what is possible, and where they can go to try to learn more on their own.

This is still a beautiful city, even if the sky in unrelenting slate gray, and the wind from Siberia knifes right through you after the sun goes down…

At night, the streets of Kiev are filled only with the rumble and clatter of Dr. Zhivago trolley cars, and the whistling north wind. The architecture here is like the people; kind of battered, but still full of character. Resilient.

I haven’t gotten to see as much of this city as I would like; I’ve always been working too hard, or pretty much exhausted & creaking from the demented flight schedule it takes to get here from Los Angeles. Still, the little I have been able to discover on my own has been delightful.

ukrainian student concentrates on the screen

This time around, my students arrived in my classes with significant New Media skills. Some of them were already creating infographics, and this girl is already ghost-blogging for big financial companies. As you can see, she is quite determined; meanwhile, behind her, another of my more active and vocal students gasps in horror at the convoluted assignments I have inflicted on the class...

One of the greater joys of this class was seeing my students help each other out. When they got stuck with some of my more technically challenging exercises, they reached out to each other, and shouted advice back and forth across the classroom.

There is no better feeling for me. I am only here for such a very short time; I keep wishing that I had an entire semester to really reach deep into these young people, to help them draw out their skills & refine them. But seeing their willingness to follow me down these strange multimedia pathways, and to help each other out along the way … leads me to believe that they will continue to help each other out after I am gone.

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Apr 19

Children of Chernobyl: Persistent Effects of Long-Term Radiation Exposure

Posted: under Online Video, Politics & New Media, Ukraine.
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200,000 deaths. Could Fukushima get this bad?

This video was produced by my students at the University of Mohyla‘s Institute for the Digital Future of Journalism in Kiev, Ukraine. It’s in Ukrainian, so my English-speaking audience won’t be able to understand the narration or interviews.

Which is kinda beside the point, after you look at these kids.

Child victim of radiation poisoning from Chernobyl

Children are particularly vulnerable to the radioactivity spewed out in a meltdown. Their bodies are growing, and as part of the growth process, the body is constantly looking for calcium to add to their bone structure.

In light of the recent disaster at the Fukushima Reactor Complex in Japan, it is more than a little chilling to look at these pictures of deathly ill children that are still – STILL – turning up in “cancer blooms” in Ukraine, long past the time when the rest of the world considered the whole matter done & dealt with. That’s the thing about true nuclear meltdowns: they don’t just go away when the news cycle gets bored of them (they way it so clearly has with the Fukushima situation).

children dying slow death from Chernobyl radiation poisoning

The problem is that Strontium-90 looks to the body like calcium. So the children's bodies grab it and add it to the calcium being deposited in the bones. And once it's there it quietly goes about poisoning the bone marrow, causing strange and unpredictable cancers. Mutations. Leukemia is about as benign as it gets.

So look at these images.  Remember that back in ’86, the governments — in the USSR and elsewhere – were also saying that there was nothing to worry about. That the levels of radiation that were released were so low that they posed no real danger. Nothing to worry about. Move along.

It came as quite a surprise to me to learn that there is a widely known (but officially denied) statistic: 200,000 people have died as a result of the radiation leak at Chernobyl. Apparently, even the average Ukrainian on the street (Dmitri Six-Pack?) knows that the government has drastically underplayed the casualties. The problem is that it is devilishly hard to pin down what it is that has caused a death 5, 10, 20 or more years after an event. Was it the radiation? Or heavy metals in the groundwater? Second-hand smoke? Or just genetic bad luck?

doctors try to figure out the root causes of the cancer crisis
Valiant Ukrainian doctors refused to shut up about the root causes of the cancer crisis. Some of them paid a heavy price for not going along with the program. Not shutting up.

When I was teaching at Mohyla, coincidentally, across the hall from my classroom, there was a doctor’s conference being held. The doctors were quietly furious. They felt that they had been screaming their lungs out about this problem, but that they were being ignored, hushed up.

Even arrested and carted away for daring to contradict the official line.

They had come to a journalism school to meet directly with people who they hoped would help them sound the alarm. To tell the story that things weren’t what the Men In Charge were saying.

“At least 500,000 people — perhaps more — have already died out of the two million people who were officially classed as victims of Chernobyl in Ukraine,” said Nikolai Omelyanets, deputy head of the National Commission for Radiation Protection in Ukraine. “[Studies show] that 34,499 people who took part in the clean-up of Chernobyl have died in the years since the catastrophe. The deaths of these people from cancers were nearly three times as high as in the rest of the population.

“We have found that infant mortality increased 20 percent to 30 percent because of chronic exposure to radiation after the accident. All this information has been ignored by the IAEA and WHO. We sent it to them in March last year and again in June. They’ve not said why they haven’t accepted it.”

Evgenia Stepanova, of the Ukrainian government’s Scientific Center for Radiation Medicine, said: “We’re overwhelmed by thyroid cancers, leukemias and genetic mutations that are not recorded in the WHO data and which were practically unknown 20 years ago.”

It’s impossible to look at these pictures and not feel a small sliver of dread in the pit of your stomach.

tiny child pulling adult-size IV around
So many children have gotten awful, incurable cancers that they have had come up with all kinds of special equipment to treat their frail, tiny bodies.

This is going to happen in Japan. The invisible killer has already been unleashed there. The radioactive poisons released into the ocean are, by definition, heavy metals. They aren’t going to go very far. At least, not at first.

So decades from now, the fish that eat the crustaceans that eat the plants that grow in the muck … those fish will have Strontium-90 in them. Cesium-137. Ruthenium-106. Phosphorus-32. Plutonium. Uranium. God knows what else.

I haven’t seen a TV news show yet that has come clean about what is being released into the environment. The closest we got was on the Bill Maher show last Friday night, where scientist Michio Kaku said it plainly: “This is a giant science experiment. And we are all the guinea pigs.”

child cancer patient - staring eyes
The parents of these children do what they can to cheer them up. Note the little stars and decorations on the surgical mask. I’m not sure if this makes it better, or even more heartbreaking.

 

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Feb 25

Mural Art in “South of the Miracle” Neighborhood

Posted: under Uncategorized.
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It may not be Banksy, but it’s still pretty cool to see local merchants reaching out to the community to pre-emptively cover their walls with something that connects with the local community.

I was out for a walk, and stumbled across this guy at the corner of Venice & Thurman, with a cardboard box next to him full of battered spray cans all missing their nozzles.

Mural

Turns out the storeowner (who took over the space from a rather creepy pseudo-psychic), saw that other shops in the area were constantly fighting the battle against taggers, and wanted to try to stave off the constant whack-a-mole struggle against idiotic and barely readable slogans. The illustration here is the artist’s interpretation of the store’s contents – it’s a medical supply outlet, and one of their big products for the aging population in this area are the comfy mechanical beds for all the former manual laborers nursing their aching backs.

Thus the whole “Stairway to Heaven” motif here. The rather creepy-eyed girl in the center of this part of the installation is working the controls for the beds/chairs/scooters this place sells. Next to her is the stairway, and then floating off into the clouds are the people who’ve bought the goods in this store, and are now in lower-back heaven. Which is kinda cool & inventive, actually.

Stairway to Heaven Mural

Just poking above the grass (weeds? I’ve never liked these damn things, but I guess they beat crabgrass/ragweed) on the right-hand side, you can see the head of his son Mario, who was, like, totally bored with his dad’s job. Sheesh. His dad’s a guerilla artist who just got a great commission and is out doing trippy work, and the kid is bagging on him nonstop. Pretty high bar to clear – what would be impressive? Watching dad play with numbers in an actuarial spreadsheet?

I guess whatever it is that you do, after a while, those closest to you grow accustomed to it & it becomes old hat.

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Jan 25

Mindshare LA: “The Illusion of Free Will”

Posted: under Conspiracy Theories, Online Video.
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No. this isn’t about how advertising brainwashes us all into buying the latest overpriced electronic P.O.S. (although The Onion News Network has one of the most hilarious stream-of-consciousness obscene NSFW videos about this very subject).

This is an intro to a mind-blowing speech by Caltech neurologist Moran Cerf at last week’s Mindshare LA, wherein we all learned that we’re not alone in our heads … (cue Psycho music). In fact, we’re not really the ones behind the steering wheel up there; our decisions are made by what seems to be something of a quorum. And what we think we know … we don’t actually know. We just react to the most recent events, no matter how traumatic the actual event was … which goes a long way towards explaining why the U.S. voted the Republicans back into power. We really have no long-term recollection of how f’d up things were — just as long as they are slightly less painful NOW. There is a part of us that actually is rational, that knows and remembers … we just choose to shove that part/persona/personality to the background in our heads so we can go about our days cheerfully smiling into the face of our delusions.

In the rest of Moran’s speech, he dealt with such things as what are the five things that actually make us happy (and no, money & sex were NOT on the list), and how we can “listen in” to the neurons firing in a human brain to detect if a person is thinking about Marilyn Monroe, or Josh Brolin. Wearing a red bandana around his head.

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Dec 16

How the Online Trojan/Virus Hackers Make Money

Posted: under adsense clickfraud.
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This is a great flow chart, explaining how the Dark Side of the internet uses your unwary clicks to generate real money. (h/t ComputerSchool.org)

It’s interesting to see the actual breakdown of how stealing your passwords and compromising your bank accounts can pay off for fraudsters. I was surprised to see that bank account passwords are not as valuable as I thought – only a 1% return, because of “risks for withdrawing the money.” Woulda thought the scammers were better than that – a couple years ago, my accounts were drained using withdrawals from ATMs at casinos out in the No-Man’s-Land between LA and Vegas. Guess they must’ve patched that particular security hole.

Anyway, this is one of the more interesting (and frequently alarming) flow charts I’ve run across in a while.

Malware.

Infographic by Computer School

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Sep 30

Taiwanimation: No Longer Parody, But Actual Useful News Interpretation

Posted: under Amusing Nonsense, Online Video, Politics & New Media, Video.
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A while back, I was asked to give me take on “The Emerging Visual Language of Online Video” as part of Rosental Alves’ amazing yearly journalism conference in Austin.  I made the room laugh when I showed parody videos like the “SoulWow” and others, created by the People Formerly Known As The Audience.

Check out this interpretation of Bob Woodward’s book on Obama & Afghanistan:

My larger point (other than getting a cheap laugh, which is never to be, well, laughed at) was that the first impulse of video-makers is to take things that they know and love, and that their friends know and love, and to do their own snarky take on them. It’s what we see when little kids get their mitts on video cameras for the first time, and produce their own home movies.

It’s what Spielberg did when he was a kid and producing his own WWII epics in his backyard. My sisters, cousins & I did this back in the (mumble mumble) decade, with 8mm film, and a script based on what we had seen of ads of movies like Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (we couldn’t get into R-rated theaters in Wisconsin).

For the average user, producing a video is an inherently daring process. Any media creation is, really – but creating a video is so much harder than typing into a WordPress text window (ahem), that it ratchets up the anxiety. As any good comedian can tell you, laughter is the release of anxiety.

Creating funny, sarcastic or absurdist videos is a way to laugh at yourself, before everyone else does (again – check with comedians as to why they became class clowns – something to do with avoiding beatings from the bullies, I expect).

But now these videos are coming into their own. Before the book has really cleared out of the news cycles, already there’s a video (pretty good quality, too), interpreting it in a way that makes you pay attention.

In the attention economy … this is pure gold.

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